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Title: Project Nexus
Chapter: Chapter 5: Shadow of a Doubt
Rating: PG-13 / T
Characters: Critic, Chick, Linkara, Spoony, MarzGurl, Doctor Insano, Doctor Tease, Professor Celluloid, Nurse, SOI, Burton, Nimue, OCs. (Brief appearance of The Other Guy and Miles)
Pairings: None (At the moment)
Warnings: AU-ish, Violence, Mild Language a few OC villians. ((This chapter: Character Death (As part of an illusion), scary imagery.))

Disclaimer: All characters/borrowed concepts are property of their respective owners. Therefore I do not claim to own them, nor do I mean any disrespect toward either characters and concepts, or their owners.

Author's Note: Big thanks to EsaEnai of FF.Net for helping co-write a couple scenes in this chapter!

To say that the team was in the worst of spirits when they returned to the base would have been an understatement.  The team looked as if they had fought through hell and back, as they shambled back to into the base. Even Insano, as much as the agitated twitch with his muscles suggested his irritation over their failure, seemed reluctant to actually berate them; for fear that one of them might actually decide to rip his face off with their fingernails.

But even so, they knew that it was inevitable that they would find themselves gathered around a cramped table in order to discuss the long list of things that went completely and utterly wrong with today’s mission. Had the group’s mood not been quite as sour as it was at that moment, Critic would have jokingly suggested that they make up a slide show with graphs and charts to go along with it.

But, as much as they needed even the briefest of chuckles, none of them felt much in the mood for any sort of levity at the moment.

They looked like a pack of animals who just found themselves soaked to the bone after coming in from the rain as they gathered around the command center with grumpy frowns. Nurse flittered about silently, quickly checking them over for injuries, and tending to the ones that she could treat most easily.

“So,” Insano said, trying his hardest to restrain himself, “What happened out there?! That’s twice in a row that you’ve let them get away!”

“Look,” MarzGurl sighed “We can’t figure out what happened. One minute, we’d gotten a lock on Paw, and then the next, we were suddenly hit in the face with this wall of darkness. Next thing we knew, Paw was completely off our radars, and we ended up right in a T-Rex den.”

“How?!” Insano nearly shouted, “We never picked up anything on the radar,”

“Don’t ask us,” Chick said from the corner as she retied her loose pigtails, “Ask our brave and fearless leader over there. Oh wait…I seem to remember him wetting his pants in fear the whole time.”

“Hey!” Critic shot back defensively, “You try looking into the jaws of a 30-foot tall death machine with razor sharp teeth.”

“You tried to use me a shield, you jerk!” Chick shouted, which earned her annoyed eye-roll from the Red Ranger.

“Well I had to do something,” Critic replied, “The thing was going eat my pancreas as a light snack. What did you expect me to do?!”

Chick rolled her eyes, giving an exasperated sigh in response. MarzGurl, trying to keep herself calm, tried to ignore the squabbling pair as she turned her attention to the mad scientists.

“Are you sure that you scanners didn’t pick up anything?” she asked.

“Of course we are,” Celluloid tried to explain, “Of course, we did seem to be having a minor glitch in the systems, but it was too brief for it to have affected any of our sensors.”

“…Except for the fact that you spilt coffee on the console,” Tease sighed, “Seriously, I thought we told you about eating while on duty, already.”

“Not my fault,” the orange haired scientist whined, “It’s not like I can get five minutes to myself to eat or sleep. You and Insano always have me running errands for you. And then you have the nerve to complain about it when I do it!”

“Excuse me,” Tease huffed, “But I’ve never complained! If anyone’s been complaining, it’s Insano. Always acting like he’s better than us…”

“Insano,” Nurse interjected calmly, “While I don’t intend to call your methods into question, I believe that Celluloid makes an accurate statement. The heavy workload and stress placed upon yourself and the crew, combined with a lack of outlets to properly channel this stress besides the training room, could have dire mental and physical side effects upon th—”

“—We’ll discuss that later, Nurse,” Insano said, his voice having much more of a hard edge to it than he intended, “Right now, we’ve got other matters to discuss. Like, how is it that somehow a group of complete imbeciles can repeatedly foil my plans for world domination, but somehow you can’t figure out how not to completely screw up an easy mission!”

“Oh, that’s simple” Linkara snarked, feeling hot anger bubbling in his throat, “Malachite and his goons actually have some power behind them. You on the other hand, are a bumbling idiot in a cheap Halloween costume who can’t even program the clock on a VCR without blowing it up!”

“He’s got a point,” Chick added, “I mean, if Insano’s inventions didn’t crap out every time someone plugged in a hairdryer, they probably could have given us a little advanced warning about that blackout.”

“How dare you have such disrespect for SCIENCE!” Insano all but shrieked, “After all we did to try to save you from that wizard killing you and all!”

“Look,” Critic said, “If there’s anyone at fault here, it’s clearly Spoony for leading us right into such an obvious trap.”

If Critic had been looking at the gamer at the time, he would have probably thought twice about making that comment. Spoony’s cheeks flushed red, as his knuckles turned white from gripping the table. Every second his confident smile faded away a little more as thoughts he’d fought so hard to keep down bubbled forth, burning his mask like acid.

“What the hell is your damn problem?!” Spoony practically yelled, “Why is it every time something goes wrong, you always automatically blame me? Do you ever get tired of that?”

Critic knew that this should have been the point where he’d take a few breaths and try to calm himself down. But, as it was, his own frustrations had hijacked his brain, spewing forth the words before they could be stopped.

“You want to know why?” Critic said coldly, “It’s because you are a screw up! Every time something goes wrong here, it’s been because you get in the way! Paw would have been with us if you hadn’t choked out there.  It’s not like you even wanted to be part of this team. For crying out loud; Marz and Linkara practically had to trick you into it! And, I almost wish they hadn’t—because, we don’t need you!”

The silence that fell over the room could have leveled a large city and left no survivors, had it been able to be weaponized. Where this would have been the place where the gamer would have replied with an angry retort or a sarcastic comment, there was none to be heard. Instead, he looked like a lost puppy that had realized it’d been abandoned by his owner.

“What’re you saying?” the gamer asked.

“I’m saying,” Critic said each word with pointed emphasis, “You. Are. A. Coward.”

Spoony’s eyes were downcast, and his shoulders slumped—not at all like the usual confidence had he normally carried himself with.

“I see,” he said quietly, “So, you think I’m useless and a coward too, huh? Maybe you and Linkara are right. Hell, maybe I was right.”

Spoony stood up slowly, as if in a trance, as he walked out of the room.  Although a tiny part of Critic wished that he could apologize, his frustrations at the situation still held control over his words, and Spoony’s reaction to them had only fueled his anger. He wanted the two of them to yell at one another, to exchange blows with one another until all their pent up anger burnt out of their systems, leaving them as laughing, and exhausted mess on the floor.

“Go ahead,” Critic shouted after him, “just run away like that, you bastard!”

Linkara felt an uncomfortable knot in his stomach as he looked between the glowering Red Ranger and the rest of the room. Everyone’s expressions were written with the same thing: a look that said “we knew that this was going to end badly, but we don’t know what to make of this.

There was still a part of him that couldn’t deny that Spoony was indeed acting childishly. But, at the same time, seeing the utterly defeated attitude that floated around his best friend like a bad stench, he couldn’t help but fear that perhaps there was more to this than something as simple and childish. He just prayed that, hopefully, things would resolve themselves before anyone did something that they regretted.
--------------------------------------

The darkened halls of Malachite’s palace were unusually quiet as Malachite paced about his study. Sometimes he didn’t know what had possessed him to establish a base within a castle.  Perhaps he had become far too accustomed to wandering aimlessly during his centuries long search for the gauntlet that the mere idea of being in one location for too long made his skin itch with wanderlust.

Perhaps it was something of a relief, he thought, that this dimension was vast enough to allow him the liberty of taking long enough walks to alleviate his uneasiness and organize his thoughts more clearly.

His eyes fell upon the brown book that lay atop the desk, almost blending in with the polished dark wood of the elegantly carved table. Despite himself, the faint traces of a smile appeared on the corners of his lips as his fingers traced over the book’s worn leather cover. While perhaps the magic gauntlet he’d spent centuries trying to recover had been lost somewhere in time and space, at least his conquest of Earth had reunited him with something just as valuable to him—his spellbook.

Maybe it was all but useless to him, as that he’d memorized nearly everything contained within its worn and yellowed pages. But, there were still some notes hidden deep within that had not managed to commit themselves so easily to his memory as they once had.

Perhaps he couldn’t find the lost stone that had once given him unlimited power, but he knew that hidden within the pages of that ancient spellbook laid the blueprints to recreate it, and perhaps make it even more powerful than before.

Why hadn’t he simply located the spell book before, rather than bothering with a long, dangerous search for the missing gauntlet? He wondered. The answer was actually quite simple, he reminded himself. The process of creating such a powerful magical object, such as the stone and the gauntlet, was very complex, dangerous and very draining.

He shuddered as his mind flashed back to centuries ago, back when he had been still a somewhat young mage. The feeling of cold death surrounded him, pulling him down into an endless abyss like a monster carrying away its victim before devouring it’s flesh, as he poured his very heart and soul into the creation of that gem.

Aeon had warned him about this, centuries ago. Though it felt like trying to recall a dream one had had back when they were younger, he could still hear the ghostly echo of his friend’s voice, warning him of the possible, gruesome fates that could befall those who tampered with such magics.

Just as technology had its dark sides, magic also did not come with out its thorns. However, where the lines of technology were more restrained by the laws of natural physics, the lines of what qualified as ‘forbidden magic’ was slight fuzzier.  Even magic that could cause damage was not necessarily considered forbidden, considering the fact that darker and deadlier magic existed.

However, Malachite no longer feared such dark magic. Perhaps that part of him had died eons ago, leaving him as nothing more than a shell of bitterness and vengeance. Or maybe it was still there, much like the souls of those that he and his minions enchanted and cursed, but was lost somewhere among layers of corruption.

Either way, he wasn’t sure that the state of his humanity truly mattered anymore. He was probably better off without it, he reasoned. Surely centuries of wandering the world, watching everything of you knew and love wither and die, only to be replaced by something else, would have driven him insane a lot sooner than it already had.

He caught glimpse of movement within the shadows in the rafters of the ceiling, telling him that he was not alone in the room. However, his instincts told him that he had no reason to believe that this was any intruder, or that said visitor had they even been in the room long enough to spy on them.

“Hello, Retsukagi,” His voice rasped as he smirked up at the hiding figure, “There’s no need to hide; I heard you enter.”

Another rush of beating wings was heard as the bird-like girl landed from the rafters, hovering just inches from the floor. She stumbled as her wings vanished, dropping her the remaining distance.

“Oh, you’re such a killjoy!” Retsukagi pouted, crossing her arms, “And, the only reason you spotted me was because I wasn’t trying to hide!”

“As if,” another voice, this one clearly belonging to Devafen, said, “The only reason that he heard you is because you’re just terrible at hiding.”

The sorcerer and the ninja turned as Devafen and Tegon stalked into the room. While an amused smirk painted the lips of the catwoman, seeing the offended glare that her comment had sparked in the half-avian woman, the lizard-like man was not amused in the least.

“Where have you been?” Tegon asked, “We could have used you’re help in a couple of fights, you know.”

Retsukagi grinned as she casually stretched, leaning back against Malachite’s desk.

“Hooray!” she giggled, “The scary lizard admits he’s not as strong as he thinks he is! Isn’t that adorable?”

“Quiet!” Tegon hissed, “And you still didn’t answer my question.”

“Well,” Retsukagi playfully stuck her tongue out at the reptilian man, “How can I do both? Either you want me to be quiet, or you want me to answer your question, silly.”

“I’ve given her another task,” Malachite explained, “One that should help in dealing with the critics.”

“Lord Malachite,” Devafen asked, bowing a little, “Might I ask what sort of mission? Surely, you don’t think that Tegon and I are incapable of defeating the critics? Yes, I know that we have been unsuccessful in previous battles against them, but I assure you that we shouldn’t fail again.”

At this, the faintest smirk crossed Malachite’s lips, as if he found something about the idea of Tegon and Devafen actually being successful for once was incredibly amusing. Then again, considering that in all the battles the pair had fought against the Rangers, not once had they successfully defeated them.

“Well,” Retsukagi replied, answering for Malachite, “The problem with your method is that you’re way too into spell-slinging and fist throwing. You really should try freaking them out a little bit. Once you got them good and paranoid, and the team starts falling apart, then we can get to the really fun stuff!”

She giggled, kicking her legs out from under her as she rolled across the desk, landing gracefully on her feet behind it.  Her high-pitched laugh made Tegon and Devafen’s skin crawl involuntarily as it echoed off the stone walls of the study.  It was as if she considered the mere idea of brutal death and destruction as something as delightful as kittens or rainbows.

“I assume,” Malachite said, ignoring the still giggling bird-girl, “That you’re both here for a reason.”

“My Lord,” Tegon began, bowing, “I have a few questions that I must ask.”

“Go ahead,” Malachite said, “But make it brief. I don’t have all day, and this crowd in here is starting to make me feel restless.”

The lizard man could not help but feel himself shudder as he saw himself reflected in the void of the sorcerer’s sunglasses.

“May I ask,” Tegon continued, “Why you’ve allowed our captives to live, even though they shown signs of awareness? And, what of this new guy you’ve recruited? Forgive my suspicions, but I find his actions questionable.”

“Oh,” A rasping, metallic voice mocked from the doorway, “I didn’t realize that I was supposed to be making myself appear trustworthy to you. And the name is Vanmir. General Vanmir the Deathbane to you.”

“Perhaps he hasn’t earned my full trust,” Malachite explained, “But, like you, General Vanmir has proven his worthiness. He’s already managed to secure something that could be very useful to us.”
            Now the trio of the cat-woman, bird-girl, and lizard-man stood at attention. Each of them looked slightly intrigued by the notion of something that could possibly be considered useful to them.

“While Devafen only managed to cut off access between Linkara and his spaceship,” General Vanmir explained, “I’ve managed to take the ship into my own possession.”

“And how does that help?” Retsukagi asked, “So, we’ve got a big floating space thing that can shoot lasers? Never mind, I just like, totally saw the positive in that.”

“Setting aside the part where I point out the obvious hypocrisy of us using super-advanced technology,” Devafen said, “Please explain exactly how having that rusting hunk of cosmic debris is going to help us.”

“That ‘hunk of cosmic debris’ as you call it,” the General said, “Contains a computer system, which holds vast amounts of information and data over various universes, as well as information regarding the comic reviewer’s arsenal—much of which could be the basis of the weaponry being used by the reviewers and the scientists.”

“And again,” Devafen replied, “This doesn’t help us. You realize that I disconnected that ship from the Artificial Intelligence unit that controls it? Even if I hadn’t, there’s still no way for any of us to be able to access any of it.”

“The ship itself is of little value to me,” Malachite interrupted, “I was speaking of those two scientists that he captured. I understand that you were able to persuade them into working with us?”

“Not entirely true,” the General corrected, his words sounding clipped and formal, “I’ve ‘persuaded’ them to work primarily for me. However, if you remember, we agreed that they, and myself, would offer our services, in exchange that you allowed us to deal with removing the captive critics as we wished.”

Malachite’s frown deepened, as he continued to stare at the masked General. Had anyone other than the half-humanoid trio been observing the stare down between the two, they would have been almost surprised that a black hole hadn’t been created between dueling voids of Vanmir’s mask and Malachite’s sunglasses.

“I remember,” Malachite replied, “But don’t forget that I also can easily choose to destroy both them and yourself should you act in any way that appears to be too suspicious, or should you test my patience with failure.”

Sharply, he cast a warning glance across the room at his minions. As if compelled by some sort of spell, the group fell still, meeting his eyes with fearful expressions. It was as if they were afraid that the wrong movement would cause them to be obliterated on the spot. Even General Vanmir, despite the rigidness in his posture, shivered just slightly as Malachite’s cold gaze fell upon him.

“The same goes for the rest of you,” Malachite continued, “Remember that you were all nothing more than common criminals and outcasts before I rescued you. Don’t continue to disappoint me.”

“Understood, my lord,” Tegon said, “But, if I might be so bold as to ask about our next strategy in undermining the critics? Every minute that they are left undefeated is another minute that they could potentially release another of their friends from your spell.”

Before Malachite could reply, Retsukagi hopped up, teleporting a few feet before, landing in the center of the room.

“Between me and General Vanmir,” she said, “The critics’ confidence should already be weakening. I believe that the critic known as Spoony is already close to breaking. Hell, I already had him pretty shaken up during our first encounter a few months ago. And that’s nothing compared to when I ambushed them earlier today. Pity I was only there to collect that reviewer guy. I could have had so much fun tearing that cute little gamer apart!”

The General covered his mouth, pretending to cough as he stifled a small chuckle. However it seemed that the other members of the group were far more interested in discussing battle strategy than they were about paying attentions to the sounds of their shark-like comrade.

“So,” Devafen asked, yawning “What’s the plan? Same as always—turn their friend into a monster, then throw a bunch of Synthspectors at them? ‘Cause that always works. And by always I mean never.”

At the mere mention of the Synthspectors, the lavender haired bird-woman’s face darkened. Whatever traces of the giggling, perky young woman that existed in within her instantly vanished as her amber eyes narrowed and her fingertips trembled slightly.

“I’d rather we didn’t have to rely on those puppets,” she said, her voice heavy with disgust, spitting out the last word as if it were a piece of bad food.

And yet, there was a faint note of something else that existed, hidden somewhere in the undertones of her voice that suggested that perhaps her dislike extended beyond simple disgust. But, what it was that she felt, one could not be entirely sure.

“Like your little illusions aren’t puppets?” Tegon snarked.

“At least whatever I construct in my traps isn’t real!” Retsukagi replied, her voice rising “At least they aren’t—”

“Enough!” Malachite said, his voice breaking above the usual rasping whisper that it usually was.

Insantly, the lizard-like man and the bird girl fell silent, both of them staring at their leader with wide eyes. None of them had ever heard the sorcerer’s voice ever rise above a growl, even in his angrier moments.

“I have a plan,” he continued, his voice now back to its usual unnervingly calm coldness, “And this time, I will oversee it myself in order to insure that it your incompetence does not mess things up.”

“But m’lord,” Devafen said, “You used a lot of magic during our conquest three months ago. I don’t want to question you’re capacity for handling magic—but even a highly skilled sorcerer as yourself would probably still be somewhat drained. Are you sure that you are able to handle fighting now?”

“I’ll be fine.” Malachite said, “I won’t needlessly expend my magic in defeating them.”

As Malachite began laying out the details of the plan, another rapt silence fell over the room. With each word he spoke, his followers became more and more confident that if this plan didn’t ultimately destroy the critics, then it would at least damage them far beyond the point of recovery.
--------------
Back in the Ranger’s base, the frustration of the failed mission and the subsequent fallout had softened into little more than an aching weariness or dull agitation, as the residents in of the dimension retreated to the various corners, each attempting to put the events of earlier out of their mind in their own ways.

Listlessly, Spoony lifted his face away from the pillow on his bed, glancing over at the alarm clock. He had tried sleeping in hopes that the rest would bring him even a semblance of peace of mind. However, his mind refused to let itself drift anywhere past a restless state on semi-consciousness, as it replayed the events of the past few hours over and over in his head.  If one were to diagram the Yellow Ranger’s train of thought at that moment, they would have probably said that it looked more like a tree branch than a train.

Sure, there was a central line of thought that all points connected back to, but most of his thoughts splinted into small lines.  Why hadn’t he saved Paw when he had the chance? He was the only one who even had half an idea what was going on.  Everything logic and previous experiences should have said that he’d be the most calm and collected out of all of them in this situation. So, why did he freeze? What made this different than anything else he’d faced before?

Was it because he realized the actual weight of what could have happened if they failed?  This wasn’t like Insano or any of his other usual rogues that they dealt with (barring the ones that typically bothered Linkara)---if they failed, there was more than a good chance that death would be the kindest and most forgiving fate that awaited any of them.

No, he thought—that was only part of the reason.  He shook his head as he heard the others words—Critic’s, Linkara’s, that illusion of his brother—echoing in his head, mocking him as loudly as if they were standing in the room with them.

They were right, weren’t they? He was a coward—too afraid to take action, on the risk that he might actually get hurt. He’d tried to convince himself that they were wrong. That was why he’d even accepted Insano’s request to become a Power Ranger in the first place, wasn’t it? And that was why he’d so foolishly tried to be a distraction for Chick when they were dealing with the pirates during their adventure in that world?

But, these efforts were meaningless gestures. Much like a dog pretending to be fierce, his bark was much worse than his bite. No matter what he did, or how he tried to act, nothing could ever change the fact that he had always been a selfish coward.

Maybe they had a point, he thought as he rolled over, staring at the ceiling. Maybe he didn’t deserve to be in charge of the Yellow Ranger powers.   It was only a string of complete luck, or misfortune that had put him in this situation.

No, he tried to tell himself as he sat up, that wasn’t true. They needed him just as much as he needed them. Malachite’s forces were tough enough against a five-person team. Surely, if he had never accepted this then the others would have been wiped out in their first battle.

But then again, who was to say that any of the other reviewers wouldn’t have been a better choice? Critic was right, after all—in their last few missions, all he’d done was get in the way, and get everyone else in trouble.  How many times had one of them gotten injured or put in a situation where they needed rescue? Had to have been at least three times now, wasn’t it?

There’s you’re problem, another part of his brain said, It’s just like Linkara said; you’re spending way too much time moping around and feeling sorry for yourself.  This shit right here is why you shouldn’t be a Ranger.

Besides, it added, why would you want to be a Power Ranger? All this running around in stupid looking spandex, fighting monsters and all this ‘fate of the world’ bullshit? You know that it’s stupid!  You wouldn’t be feeling miserable if you hadn’t gotten involved in this.

This wasn’t working, he thought as he climbed out of bed and began pacing about the room. He couldn’t keep letting himself keep going on with this type of thought.

His pacing led him to a desk in the corner of the room. Upon the desk lay a small stack of paper and a few pens. Thinking a little he sat down and started writing.

Guys-
I’m leaving. I need some time alone. I’ll come back when…

Spoony trailed off, pen pausing over the paper. When what? When this was over? It would never be; there was no chance anymore. The Rangers were outmanned and outmatched. And the sooner the others could see that, the better. Shaking his head, he crumpled the paper and tossed it aside. He tried again.

Guys-
I knew all along this wouldn’t work. The sooner you can all see that, the better. I’ll be…

He paused again. He didn’t know where he was going. Didn’t really care, as long as it was away from here.  He tried to tell himself that he was doing the right thing. He had to look out for himself; he couldn’t just stay here and be killed. Or risk getting anyone else killed because of him, either.  He was more of a liability to the team than an asset.  And even moreso while he was in a state like this.

Guys-
What are we doing? What are we accomplishing? You may call me a coward, but…

Spoony blinked at what he’d just written, and felt his stomach sink. But? But nothing. He was a coward, and this was him running away. There was no point in denying or trying to sugarcoat it anymore.  For the last time, Spoony crumpled his paper and started over.

Guys-
You’re right. I’m a coward. You’re better off without me. I’m sorry.

-Spoony
----------------------------

Not long afterwards, the gamer found himself in the control room. He cursed under his breath as he fiddled with some of the knobs and buttons upon the console. Where to go? He wondered.  Going back to his home dimension was out of the question. It was far too dangerous of a place to be—especially when that would probably be the first place that the others, as well as Malachite’s army would go looking for him once they realized he was gone.

He needed to go somewhere no one would ever go; somewhere where he could be ignored, forgotten. Somewhere he could start over.  The gamer cocked his head to the side, almost smiling as he punched in a few coordinates.

 As he readied himself on the platform, hoisting his duffel bag onto his shoulder and about to activate the transporter, when he heard a timid squeak come from the doorway.

“Rikki-tee?”

SOI bounced uncertainly into the room. The poor creature looked as if he had just woken up from a nightmare. He’d probably had a bad dream while taking a nap, the gamer guessed, and was probably just passing by on his way to find his dad, before hearing some noise in here.

Swallowing a curse, Spoony tried to smile. “Hey, buddy,” he said, patting the creature on the top of his head, “Run along, alright?”

“Rikki!” the pink creature chirped, “Rikki-tee-tikki?”

“Well, uh… to the store!” Spoony lied quickly, “We’re out of… toaster strudel.”

“Rikki-tee…”

Spoony’ smile began to feel fake, even to him.  They both knew that that was a flimsiest of flimsy lies. Insano and the others had created food-replicators and synthesizers within this dimension—so even a normal child would have been able to call him out on an excuse like ‘I have to go to the grocery store’. He felt his heart sink lower in his chest as he saw the wide-eyed, almost sad look on the child’s face as it stared back up at him.   For a moment, he almost considered picking up the orb-shaped child and leaving, putting all thoughts of even leaving out of his mind.

He couldn’t lie and leave SOI like this, he thought. The little creature thought of him like family—like he was the cool adopted uncle or something.  It’d be kind of terrible of him to just leave like this.

I’m sorry, He thought as he sighed, I don’t mean to hurt you, either. But hopefully you’ll understand.

Thinking quickly, Spoony pointed to the console, where he’d left the note.

“Hey, buddy. I have a mission for you,” he said, “I need you to go take that paper to your dad, alright?”

SOI practically purred, grabbing the note in his mouth and hopping towards the door. Spoony sighed, but his stomach plummeted once more as he turned back around.

The pinkish creature’s eyes were wider than he’d ever seen them, staring at him with a tearful expression as if he’d witnessed the gamer kicking a puppy.

“RIKKI-TEE?!”

The note fluttered to the floor as Spoony hurriedly shushed the little creature, praying that Insano hadn’t been close enough to hear him.  SOI’s frantic squeaks were like daggers to the gamers’ heart as they grew more frantic and demanding.

“Leaving?” he said hurriedly, “No! Why would I be-”

“Rikki-tikki! Rikki-tee-tikki!”

“When in the hell did you learn how to read?!”

Riiiiii….” The little creature trilled, it’s tiny tendrils flaring out in a motion that suggested he was saying  ‘Look at me; I might be a child, but, I’m the son of a mad scientist. I’m not stupid.

SOI began to bounce in place agitatedly, squeaks getting louder and more pleading. “Rikki-tikki?!”

Spoony rolled his eyes, holding up his hands to calm SOI. Yet, he could feel his heart sinking even lower as he listened to the pink orbs mouse-like sobs.

“This has nothing to do with me not liking you!” He said gently, “Of course I like you!”

“….Riiikiii?” SOI sniffed.

“I don’t hate the others either,” Spoony tried to explain, “ It’s just that I… just need some time alone. You understand, right?”

SOI, in three large bounces, cleared the room and ended up in Spoony’s arms. He buried his face in Spoony’s chest, squealing pleas at him. Spoony patted his head as he hugged him.

“I’m sorry.” He said, “I HAVE to. It’s just not…”

Why couldn’t he tell him the truth?  He thought bitterly. Why couldn’t he tell him that he was fleeing for his life because he was too afraid to face the fact that for once in his life he was more terrified than he’d ever been? Terrified not just for himself, but for everyone around him as well? That for once in his life, he didn’t know if he could handle this much responsibility and pressure?

From down the hallway came the sounds of padding feet, and Insano’s voice echoed into the room.

“Son? Is everything alright?” SOI and Spoony froze, and the gamerswore under his breath. He began to pry SOI off of him, but the pink ball wouldn’t be budged. It chirruped loudly in protest, and Insano’s footsteps grew louder.

“Son? What’s wrong?” Insano asked, the panic in his voice rising as his footsteps hastened, “Daddy’s coming!”

Spoony looked around, nervous sweat running down his forehead like He had to do something; he thought wildly punching in a few buttons on the control panel. He couldn’t let Insano know that he was in there; it’d just lead to too many questions that he wasn’t sure that he could answer easily.

Just as Insano entered the room, it was in time to see his son and The Spoony One vanish into thin air.

The mad scientist could only stare at the empty spot in which the gamer and the pink orb had stood only moments ago. Had it been scientifically possibly for his jaw to have actually hit the floor, he was positive that it would have crashed through the floor.

No sooner had the expression of disbelief passed across his face was it replaced with another expression. Immediately, his normally twitching hands steadied as they clenched into two angry fists.  His lips curled into a stern, furious frown as he stalked over to the console, slamming his hand down upon the controls.

“Nimue!” Insano shouted,

This unit is now online,” Nimue’s calm voice echoed through the speakers, “But for future reference, I would appreciate it if you did not yell at me to get my attention.

“Nimue,” Insano said, the giggling manic quality having evaporated from his voice like water on hot sand, “Sound the alarms and have everyone meet in the command center, immediately. We’ve got an emergency on our hands.”

Understood,” the artificial intelligence unit said.  Almost immediately, a loud wail echoed through the room as the sirens were activated.

In a matter of minutes the others had gathered into the room.  While the serious expressions on their faces suggested that they assumed that the alarm had indicated that the computers had found another missing reviewer, they were given pause as they noticed two things wrong with this scene.

For starters, The Yellow Ranger was clearly absent. That, and a furious redness painted Insano’s cheeks as his fingertips flew over the buttons and knobs on the control panel.  Without a word, Doctor Tease and Professor Celluloid began assisting their spiral-goggled leader.

“Insano,” Linkara asked, “What’s the problem? Where’s Spoony?”

“Spoony is the problem!” Insano yelled, “The damned idiot just kidnapped my son, and jumped out of here!”

Once more, Linkara felt the uncomfortable feeling of his stomach sinking, threatening to drop onto the floor below.  Damn it, he swore to himself, he should have known that this was going to happen.  Part of him wanted to call his dark-haired friend childish and selfish for running away like that, but a little part in his mind could not help but feel a twinge of sympathy.

He knew Spoony well enough to know that he wasn’t the type who just easily gave up without a reason. Heck, he almost laughed, the man had gotten over being dead more than once.  So, for Spoony to have left them like that, he reasoned that something about the last few missions had really shaken him up a lot worse than any of them had thought.

The others didn’t seem to be handling the news much better than he was. Chick rolled her eyes and gave an exasperated sigh as if to say ‘Really? And he took Insano’s kid with him? What an idiot.’. Nearby, MarzGurl’s hands were clenched into trembling fists as she took deep breaths, as if she were focusing every ounce of her energy into keeping herself from beating a hole into the nearby wall.   Critic, on the other hand, was doing considerably less to even mask his emotions.

“Son of a bitch!” Critic fumed, “Why?!”

“I don’t know!” Insano shouted, over the frantic clicking of keys “But if I had to make a hypothesis—I’d say that it was because of that argument that you two had earlier today, combined with the fact that he’s a colossal idiot. Don’t know why he felt the need to drag my son into this, however.”

Critic huffed, grumbling a string of curses under his breath. However, his furrowed brow and downcast gaze seemed to say more than what his words did. Part of him was worried about Spoony, it hinted. Sure, he might have often put his friends in dangerous situations in the past, he reasoned, but he was different now. He didn’t want to see any of friends get hurt.

“Well,” Chick said, “Spoony still has his morpher on him. So, why don’t we just re-trace the last location the transporter beamed to, and then use his morpher to pinpoint his signal? Shouldn’t be a problem, right?”

“That’s true,” Professor Celluloid replied, “But just because we find the morpher, doesn’t mean that we find Spoony.  So, if we’re just sorting through regular bio-rhythmic signals, it’s going to take a while.”

Doctor Tease was about to speak, when once more the alarm blared, sending the lights in the room into a brief frenzy before being shut off by the blonde doctor.

“Damn it,” she swore instead as she pressed a few more buttons, “As if we didn’t have enough trouble before. Give me a second, I’m running a more thorough analysis right now. Ah, there we go.”

The data that appeared on the screen was enough to make Critic look as if he’d seen a ghost. His hands and feet felt numb as he nearly stumbled into the console on his way to more closely read the data. It couldn’t possibly be true, he wondered, could it?

It couldn’t have been telling him that they had found The Other Guy.

The Red Ranger didn’t know how to take this news. On one hand, this was probably the best news to happen all day. His brother was alive and well, waiting for them to rescue him. On the other hand, this more than likely meant that, whatever dimension The Other Guy was in, he’d probably have had his memory altered and thus wouldn’t recognize Critic or the others.

Plus, he added bitterly, this probably meant that it was likely that Malachite’s minions would be nearby, and the whole thing would end with The Other Guy getting turned into a raging monster that was set on destroying everything in its path.

He wasn’t sure that he could handle being forced to fight against his own brother.

“Hmm,” Tease said, biting her lip as she read over the information, “From what I’m reading here, this universe isn’t all that much different than our own in structure.”

“Wow,” Celluoid remarked, adjusting his glasses, “That’s the most solid reading we’ve had in ages. I can probably teleport you guys pretty close to where he is.”

Linkara crossed his arms as he also examined the information. Something didn’t feel right about any of this. Professor Celluloid was right; the reading was incredibly strong. Perhaps it was a little too strong.  It could have been a trap set up by Malachite’s forces to capture them and possibly kill them. On the other hand, if this was real, then they couldn’t just sit around and let Malachite take him again.

“I don’t like it,” Chick said, “This is obviously a trap. The only way that this could be more obvious is a flashing neon sign that has the words ‘This is a trap’ written on it in huge letters.”

“What if it isn’t?” MarzGurl replied, “There’s no way that I’m letting that General creep or any of his pals take anyone else.”

“If it’s a trap,” Critic said, “Then we’ll just have to go in and bust it up like we always do. I say we go.”

“Wait a minute,” Insano said, “You’re not going anywhere until we get my son and Spoony back here!”

The shade of red that Critic’s face flushed matched the color of his morpher as he felt a vein of agitation twitch in the corner of his forehead.  Insano had a point—they didn’t stand a chance against Tegon, Devafen and The General while they weren’t at full strength. Damn it, Critic swore to himself, why had Spoony chosen now to be more difficult than he normally was?

“Forget it, Doc,” Critic said, “This is my brother we’re talking about here. I’m not going to let myself lose him again, damn it!”

“And I can’t allow myself to lose my family!” Insano replied, his voice rising angrily.

A stunned silence fell over the room as the mad-scientist began shaking, turning his back to the team as he fought back a small stream of glistening tears

“I can’t bear to go through that again,” he whispered in a trembling voice.

The orange haired professor gently patted his colleague’s shoulder as he exchanged a brief, sympathetic look with his female colleague. He remembered how Linksano and Doctor Block’s disappearance had all but crushed their spirits. After all, for them, not only had that been their first real mission, but also their first failure.  But more than that, he knew that to his two colleagues had been closer to the two missing scientists than he had ever been.  After all, while Linksano and Insano argued a lot, they were still brothers.  And Tease and Block had been more like sisters than best friends.

“Insano,” Critic said, “I’m sorry. But, Celluoid’s right—it’d take too long for us to find Spoony or your son. If this isn’t a trap, then we might not have that much time before we lose Rob forever.”

“Besides,” MarzGurl added, “We know Spoony’s a moron, but he’s not stupid enough to do anything to get your son hurt. They’ll be okay.”

“How about this,” Chick said, “We get in there, bust up the bad guy’s plan like we always do and if Spoony hasn’t snapped out of this and decided to bring your son back, we’ll go find him and kick his ass for you.”

Insano’s shoulders relaxed as he swallowed back some spit and regained enough composure to look up again.  A small smile, not quite as confident or sly as his usual grin but still reassuring, spread across his lips as he looked back at Rangers and the other two scientists.

“Alright,” He said, “But you’d better get it over with quick, okay? I’m not going to sit around and let my son be lost out there forever, you know.”

The Rangers said nothing, instead only choosing to give a quick nod as they readied themselves for teleportation. With a few quick taps on the control panel, the Ranger’s morphers began to blink, as they felt themselves being teleported away from the base.

Had they know what was to await them once they arrived in this new dimension, however, they probably would not have been eager to so quickly and foolishly venture headfirst into this mission.
---
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